Dolly Parton is, indisputably, a national treasure. She is the rare American pop cultural icon that unites fans across generations, political persuasions, and walks of life. She’s the fast-talking, quick-smiling personification of the American dream, a woman whose humanity and love of her fellow (wo)man has yielded decades of hits and millions in donations to her numerous philanthropic efforts. She is an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ community, and unafraid to voice her support for the marginalized on stage and elsewhere. She’s an exceptional storyteller, a first-rate performer, a savvy businesswoman, and an excellent sport, whether it comes to collaborating with artists across genres and generations, penning soundtracks for a Netflix coming-of-age tale loosely based on Dolly devotion, or cracking jokes at her own expense.
Yet Parton is also, among these many achievements, human, and therefore fallible. Even she can make the occasional choice that’ll raise more than an eyebrow—especially if it’s at the expense of her own feminist anthem. With her hard-earned status as a culture deity and her indefatigable charm, it’s easy—expected, even—to simply love Parton without question, to shy away from the discomfort of realizing she made an unexpected misstep.
Take her most recent of endeavors: her first Super Bowl commercial. On Tuesday, Squarespace debuted its impressive spot for the upcoming Super Bowl, built around a Parton classic. Directed by Damien Chazelle (of La La Land fame), the commercial takes “9 to 5”—Parton’s 1980 smash, and the theme song for the workplace comedy of the same name in which she co-starred that’s centered on three women teaming up against their sexist, blowhard bigot of a boss—and gives it a modern twist. Instead of riffing on the thankless low points of the typical workday, Squarespace opted to celebrate the “side hustle” one can pursue between the “off” hours of “5 to 9”—not 5-9 p.m., mind you, but 5 p.m. to 9 a.m., as confirmed by the press release.
In the ad, the drab grey cubicle walls, desks, and business casual ensembles of slumped-over professionals at the office are gradually replaced by vibrant dreams made reality as Parton rolls through her updated lyrics. A woman in scarlet workout gear launches a fitness app as Parton encourages her: “You’ve got passion and a vision/ because it’s hustlin’ time, the only way to make a livin’!” Another, in daffodil yellow, trims a topiary while customizing a website for her landscaping business (“Gonna change your life, do something that gives it meaning!”). A guy hangs artwork on the walls of his cubicle as he creates a webshop “with a website that is worthy of your dreamin’!’” Within a minute, the office is a technicolor dreamlab of possibility for those who can make their side hustle their full-time job if they just dream a little harder (and make those dreams come true with Squarespace). Parton makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo winking from a magazine cover tacked to the office wall, but otherwise, she’s absent from the festivities.
On the surface, nothing about this ad is that deep: A Super Bowl commercial remains the holy grail of advertising, her “follow your dreams!” platitude is well-meaning, and Parton, of course, can do whatever she wants with her music, and work with whomever she likes, without a need for explanation. But to reframe “9 to 5” as a playful “hustle anthem” is surprisingly off-key, both when it comes to acknowledging the current moment and the original spirit of the song. When I shared the Squarespace spot with a group of friends, one pointed out that 9 to 5 was inspired by 9to5, a feminist labor and advocacy organization founded in the ’70s that fought for gender equality in the workplace and continues to do so today. (Jane Fonda, Parton’s co-star, appears in a new PBS documentary about 9to5 that premiered Feb. 1.)
Some of 9to5’s goals are to ensure just working conditions for women that include paid sick leave, equitable pay, part-time benefits, and considerations for pregnant women that include assurances they’ll be able to safely work through the end of their pregnancy—all things that are a bit tough to finagle when you’re working from dusk to dawn while acting as your own boss and HR department. That this remains a goal of 9to5 after decades of progress is the crux of the problem: It and others are doing the work to close the pay gap and improve working conditions for all women, but the rest of the world has not caught up. Though strides have been made, women still make pennies to the man’s dollar, especially women of color. This inequity was the norm before the rise of the gig economy—which often replaces full-time opportunities with freelance or part-time ones while presenting it as a hustletocracy fueled by “passion”—and the coronavirus pandemic, which tanked the economy while forcing women out of the workforce in droves.
So perhaps it is that deep. It’s actually antithetical to give Parton’s “9 to 5” a gig economy makeover for a tech giant to run during the Super Bowl—especially in the midst of a full-blown crisis disproportionately impacting women and communities of color. The commercial will air and the world will move on, but the fact remains that Parton—an artist deservedly lauded as one of the most skillful, altruistic, and generous performers of all time—diminished one of the most potent, and beloved, messages behind her own work while dressing it up as a tribute. And while the new lyrics are clever, the old ones feel far more in step with what many are living through as they file for unemployment in record numbers, turn their kitchens into bakeries, their cars into cabs, their homes into hotels that stay unbooked and empty: It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
Dolly, I will always love you—but I will not always love the commodification of your work.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.